Public Viewing Frequently Asked Questions
How much do the viewings cost?
Nothing! Although keep in mind that you will probably have to pay to park on or near campus.
Do I need a reservation?
No, although if you plan to bring a group of 15 or more people we ask that you notify us at least two weeks in advance so we can try to avoid having too many groups come on the same evening.
Can I arrange for a private event at the telescopes?
Unfortunately, we cannot accommodate private events at the UT campus telescopes.
I’m bringing a group for a public night - can we bring refreshments?
Drinks are allowed at both viewing locations, but food is no longer permitted. Please make sure all drinks are in bottles or in cups with lids. Note that alcohol is NOT permitted at either telescope.
Do I have to arrive when it opens and stay the whole time?
No, you can come and go as you wish, although we don’t recommend arriving within 30 minutes of closing since the automatic locks may activate and you may not be able to enter the buildings. Also, keep in mind that some objects might be visible only during some parts of the open period depending on rising and setting times.
Will there be someone there to tell us what we’re looking at?
The viewing events are pretty informal but there will be an astronomy staff member or student on hand to run the telescope, tell you about what you’re seeing, and to answer questions.
Will the telescope move to different things during the night?
Most of the time, yes. On rare occasions, if there is a really large crowd, we may end up on the same object the whole time so everyone can get a chance to see it. For example - Saturn was particularly nice during the summers of 2013 and 2014 and we often had large crowds at PMA so we stayed on it the whole evening.
What kinds of crowds can I expect?
The average numbers can vary a lot during the year. The busiest times are in the second half of the spring and fall semesters when students in our Introductory Astronomy classes come for assignments and/or extra credit. There are sometimes spikes in attendance if there is a particular event in the news (lunar eclipse, close approach of Mars, etc.) but predicting numbers from week to week can be difficult.
What can I expect to see? Will I see the moon, Mars, etc.?
It all depends on what is up during the times we are open. The cycle of the moon and planets change from week to week, month to month, and year to year, but if they are up and in range of the telescope, those are the primary objects we will show. The city lights have an impact to our ability to observe fainter or more diffuse objects, but some are visible (e.g. the Orion Nebula, bright star clusters).
What’s the difference between the two telescopes? Is one better than the other?
The telescope at Painter Hall has a 9-inch lens and is what we call a refracting telescope (or simply “a refractor”). The telescope at PMA has a 16-inch mirror and is called, not surprisingly, a reflector. Even though the mirror in the PMA telescope is larger than the lens at Painter, because they are two different types of telescopes you can’t really do a simple direct comparison. They will observe comparable objects at roughly comparable magnifications. One other difference is that the Painter Hall telescope is actually an antique and is probably more what the average person pictures when you say “telescope”. The PMA telescope is more modern and looks more like a hot water heater on a mount!
What are the differences between the two telescope locations?
In Painter Hall, you come up through the building and are in the building or dome the whole time. At PMA you come up to an open roof surface and can come in and out of the dome. PMA is better for large groups of 15 or more since there is a lot more room out on the roof to accommodate larger crowds. Please note that both locations can be quite hot in the summers and the PMA roof can be very cold and windy in the winter. During particularly hot weather we recommend bringing bottled water or a container to fill up at the water fountains in the buildings.
Do you have viewings all year? And at what times?
Viewing are held during the fall, spring, and summer class sessions (excluding finals week). We take breaks between semesters, for Spring Break, and the Thanksgiving holiday. Schedules for each upcoming session are usually posted in late August for the fall semester, mid-January for the spring semester, and late May for the summer session. The times will change throughout the year as the time of sunset shifts through the seasons. The most early-bedtime-friendly times are the fall semester after we go back to standard time and the spring semester before we go on to daylight saving time.
How do you decide to cancel because of weather?
Weather cancellation is tricky, since - as we all know - the weather can change quickly in Texas! We try to make a decision at a minimum of 30 minutes before a scheduled start time so people coming from further out of town can know whether or not to drive in to central Austin. There are some nights that aren’t difficult - either completely beautiful, clear skies, or it’s pouring down rain. But those partly-to-mostly cloudy late evenings are the tricky ones! We also take into account the movement of clouds and weather systems (i.e. it may be partly cloudy half an hour before start time, but a system is coming that will increase the clouds over the next hour) and try to make the best judgement call. Sometimes if the clouds are thin we will still open up if the moon or a bright planet is visible, since those objects can usually still be seen in those conditions.
Is the Painter Hall telescope open when there is a UT home football game?
If there is a nighttime home football game, there will be no viewing that night at the Painter Hall telescope. The telescope would still be open on Friday even if there is a cancellation due to a game on Saturday. Early game start times (11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) usually finish in time for the viewing so viewing would usually be held in those cases, but double-check before planning to visit by checking the weather line closer to the start time that evening.
Can I take pictures of or through the telescopes?
You can take photos of the telescopes and from the roof of PMA, but please be careful with your use of the flash on your camera. Please DO NOT use your flash inside the telescope domes. If you are taking photos outside the dome at PMA, please note where your flash may be seen if you are near the door to the dome. We do allow people to take photos of objects in the telescope by holding their cameras to the eyepiece, but please keep in mind that we may have to suspend that if there is a large crowd. If you need a photo for a class, we may ask you to wait until the end of the line to take pictures so the general public can look through the telescope first.
The Perseids/Leonids/Geminids meteor shower peaks this week - will you observe it at the public viewing?
As a rule, meteor showers are best to observe with just your eyes or maybe binoculars to look at interesting trains left by larger fireballs. We usually recommend just find a nice, dark (and safe!) place and just look up!
Will you be doing special viewing for the "Supermoon"?
We don't do any additional viewing for the so-called "Supermoons" (full moons that fall close to the moon's perigee), but there is often a good chance that the full moon will fall on one of the nights we are already open.